How do you like the sound of spending a day in the heart of Edinburgh to discover the secret side of the city? There are a lot more sights to see than the usual suspects. Read on for a bucket list of the best hidden Edinburgh museums, galleries and monuments that are worth a visit!
This post is sponsored by Museums & Galleries Edinburgh and contains affiliate links, which I may make a commission from.
Edinburgh is a culturally rich city that is best known for its medieval Old Town, the grand streets of the 17th-century New Town, the waters of the Port of Leith and the nine volcanic hills that shape its skyline. Dotted among these world-famous sites, though, are innumerable hidden gems that allow you to get away from the busy tourist attractions and off the beaten track.
Museums & Galleries Edinburgh challenged me to spend a day in the city, discovering some of the city’s lesser-known arts and culture venues. Read on to find out which hidden Edinburgh museums, galleries and monuments to add to your bucket list and how to fit them all into your itinerary.
PS: Did you know that many people who originally owned buildings in Edinburgh’s New Town, had beneficial connections to the transatlantic slave trade? Find out more about this here.
Museums & Galleries Edinburgh
Museums & Galleries Edinburgh manages numerous vibrant venues in Edinburgh and maintains over 200 monuments dotted around the city. The museums and galleries that are part of this group boast fascinating exhibitions with something to discover for everyone. In addition to the permanent collections, the team of curators always develop new temporary exhibits to go on display, making it exciting to visit again and again. You can read about current and upcoming events and exhibitions here.
All the museums and galleries are located in historic listed buildings, ranging from medieval Old Town living spaces to actual castles. The list of monuments includes two of Edinburgh’s tallest and most magnificent – Scott Monument on Princes Street and Nelson Monument on Calton Hill.
And the best thing? Most of these venues are completely free to visit, so there is really no reason not to add a few to your Edinburgh itinerary!
Tips for a Day at Edinburgh Museums
Getting to Edinburgh | I visited Edinburgh on a day trip from Glasgow. Using Glasgow as a home base can be a very budget-friendly option for your trip to Scotland as hotels are generally cheaper – but it can also just relax your stay since Glasgow is less busy than Edinburgh. The cities are so close together that you can easily jump on a bus or train in the morning, spend all day in the city and return before or after dinner. It takes 50-75 minutes on the train, depending on the connection or about 70 minutes on the bus.
You will arrive in the centre of Edinburgh – the bus and train station are very close together – which sets you up perfectly for a day of exploring.
Your Edinburgh Itinerary | I managed to visit six venues in one day – three before lunch and three in the afternoon. All of them were located in central Edinburgh, less than 15 minutes walk from the train station and in easy walking distance from each other – no need to take public transport or taxis. I arrived in Edinburgh at 10 am, which is when most attractions in the city open their doors and stayed until 5 pm, which is when they close. After a well-deserved drink and snack at a pub on the Royal Mile, I took the train back to Glasgow. Perfect day
What to bring | The weather in Scotland is always unpredictable, but Edinburgh on the east coast is usually a bit colder than Glasgow on the west coast. Wear a waterproof jacket and warm layers underneath, I always through in an extra scarf or cardigan to stay warm, and also a pair of socks – nothing worse than getting wet feet. I needed them after slipping in the mud on Calton Hill! I prepped my Google Maps app by saving all the museums and galleries on my itinerary that day, which made navigating the quickest ways to get from A to B much easier. If you follow my itinerary to a T, you will be doing a lot of walking! Wear comfortable shoes and a backpack for comfort. My new waterproof daypack kept my camera and extra layers dry when I got caught in more than one sudden bursts of rain.
Hidden Gems in Edinburgh
The Nelson Monument was built in honour of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, who led a British fleet in the Royal Navy. His strategy used in the Battle of Trafalgar resulted in Britain’s greatest naval victory against the French (in the Napoleonic Wars). Nelson, who was fatally wounded in this battle, loved Edinburgh, and so the people of the city decided to build him a monument.
It was built from 1807 to 1815 and officially opened 10 years after Nelson’s death. Its location on the top of Calton Hill is two-fold – on the one hand, it holds a prominent location, is part of the Edinburgh skyline and easily spotted from around the city. However, it is also visible from the water and ships in the Port of Leith used it for navigation. In 1853, a “timeball” was installed At its top, a useful visual time signal for the ships in Leith. Later the drop of the ball was accompanied by the firing of a cannon at the castle to add an audio signal for days with bad visibility.
Visitors can climb to the top of the monument for panoramic views of the Old and New Town, Arthur Seat and Salisbury Crags, the other monuments of Calton Hill and of course, the Port of Leith. At the bottom of the tower, a small museum tells the story of the monument and gives insight into the significance of the Royal Navy as well as the Port of Leith.
Nelson Monument, Calton Hill, 10 am to 5 pm, Entrance: £6.
PS: The Nelson Monument is a great alternative to the Scott Monument if you don’t like narrow staircases!
For many centuries, the City Observatory on Calton Hill was the home of astronomy and timekeeping. It was where the sailors from the Port of Leith would set their chronometers and astronomers like Thomas Henderson observed the transit of the stars above.
After an extensive fundraising period, the City Observatory was restored and expanded to house Collective – an organisation that observes the art landscape (instead of the stars) and shines a light on new work by up and coming artists. The new gallery was opened in 2018 and as you can see in the image above, extends across multiple buildings on the site.
There are exhibition and workshop spaces across the Observatory, the City Dome and the Transit House, a cafe and a restaurant, a stunning viewing platform facing the Port of Leith and a purpose-built exhibition space underneath the Observatory.
Collective also creates opportunities for emerging curators and programmers, works with school groups and young adults and has an extensive events programme open to the public.
City Observatory, Calton Hill, 10 am to 5 pm, Free entrance [£5 Donation Welcome].
City Art Centre
I won’t lie, but the City Art Centre was the biggest surprise for me on this day in Edinburgh! The gallery is 5 stories tall and just across the road from Waverley train station – really hard to miss, right? Well, I didn’t even know it existed! For years, I have gotten off the train and walked right past this massive art gallery hiding in plain sight. Oh, what a loss!
The gallery has four spaces filled with ever-changing exhibitions, making full use of the wider collections owned by Museums & Galleries Edinburgh. When I visited, my favourite exhibit was dedicated to the Scottish painter Mary Cameron, who despite having successfully exhibited her work in Edinburgh and Paris to raving reviews, is little known today. I loved learning about her life and work and seeing some of her most stunning paintings exhibited.
The top floor of the building has a beautiful event space which can be hired for parties, receptions and even weddings and offers stunning views across to Balmoral Hotel, Scott Monument and Princes Street Garden.
City Art Centre, 2 Market Street, Edinburgh EH1 1DE, 10 am to 5 pm, Free entrance [Donations Welcome].
Get lunch at Mimi’s Bakehouse on the ground floor of City Art Centre or their smaller Old Town location on Canongate (Royal Mile) near the Museum of Edinburgh and The People’s Story. They have a wide range of sandwiches and hot meals, but also the most delicious cakes on offer – including mouthwatering vegan options.
The Writer’s Museum & Makar’s Court
This museum is for the bookworms and literature lovers among you. Ever heard of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott or Robert Louis Stevenson? The Writer’s Museum is the place to go to learn more about them!
The museum is located in the historic home of Lady Stair and dedicated entirely to the lives and work of these Scottish writers. In the different rooms, you learn about their very different backgrounds, how their writing was perceived during their lifetimes and what impact their work has had on Scottish identity and culture.
The exhibitions also feature some quirky objects such as a plaster cast of Robert Burns’ skull, the rocking horse Scott used as a child and Stevenson’s wardrobe made by the infamous Deacon Brodie whose double life may have inspired the novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. There is also space for changing exhibitions highlighting other Scottish writers.
The building itself is just as interesting as the exhibitions though. The museum is housed in the 17th-century tower-house of Elizabeth Dowager Countess of Stair – i.e. the Lady Stair. It was saved from demolition in the late 19th century, renovated in 1897 and subsequently opened as a museum. Interestingly, the first mention of an African servant living in a house in Edinburgh, was of a man named Oronoce who served Lady Stair.
The interior is fascinating and comparing it to a drawing of the building from 1897, hardly anything has changed since. A visit to the Writer’s Museum is thus not only an interesting learning opportunity about Scottish literature, but also a trip back in time to see what life was like over 100 years ago.
Outside the museum, Makar’s Court is a peaceful court with inscribed flagstones celebrating Scottish writers and poets.
The Writer’s Museum, Makar’s Court, Lady Stair’s Close, Edinburgh EH1 2PA, 10 am to 5 pm, Free entrance [Donations Welcome].
Museum of Edinburgh
The Museum of Edinburgh focusses on the history of the city and different aspects that contribute to Edinburgh’s unique character. It tells the fascinating history of Edinburgh’s burghs and how they grew together into one big city.
The permanent exhibits feature quirky objects from the daily lives of Edinburghers throughout time, as well as collections of local craftsmanship such as 18th-century pottery, porcelain and glass cutting. The courtyard in the back features engraved stones and offers a peaceful escape from the bustle of the Royal Mile.
The museum stretched across a couple of buildings in the burgh of Canongate. The building could not be more different to Lady Stair’s tower-house further up the Royal Mile though. It is fascinating to see the different styles of architecture and the exhibit tells you everything you need to know why two houses that are a mere 10-minute walk from each other, look so different.
Outlander fans will be happy to hear that the Museum of Edinburgh and the adjacent Bakehouse Close were used as a film location for season three!
Museum of Edinburgh, Royal Mile, 142-146 Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8DD, 10 am to 5 pm, Free entrance [Donations Welcome].
The People’s Story Museum
Just across the road from the Museum of Edinburgh, the People’s Story Museum perfectly compliments the exhibitions about the city by adding a dose of social history.
When it was opened in 1989, the People’s Story Museum is incredibly radical. Back then, museums only told the grand stories of “important” individuals – not the lives of ordinary folks from the local working class. But the people of Edinburgh demanded a place where they could tell and preserve their own stories. A reminiscence group formed and subsequently collected stories, memories and objects from people around the city to be exhibited at the museum.
The museum is located at the Canongate Tolbooth, the 16th-century administrative centre of the burgh of Canongate, which was outside the city walls of Edinburgh until the mid-19th century. It housed a courtroom and meeting place for the Council, a prison, and later also a police post, a library, a Registrar’s office and accommodation for staff.
All characters in the museum are based on real people from Edinburgh and the memories of residents. The exhibition shows what life was like in Edinburgh throughout the centuries, but focusses particularly on 20th-century social history. A large part of the museum is dedicated to the history of trade unions, political and social movements, and the different jobs and trades available to Edinburghers.
Very little has changed at the museum since it opened in the 1980s, but the city of Edinburgh has undergone a significant transformation. The museum is working on bringing the People’s Story to the 21st century, but they need your input. You can join the conversation on social media or by directly engaging with Museum & Galleries Edinburgh about it!
The People’s Story Museum, Royal Mile, 163 Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8DD, 10 am to 5 pm, Free entrance [Donations Welcome].
After visiting six museums and monuments, you might be ready for a drink! There are tons of bars, pubs and restaurants on the Royal Mile, but some of them can be very busy and touristy. I really like No 1 High Street, a beautiful, traditional pub at the border between the historic burghs of Edinburgh and Canongate – a five-minute walk from the People’s Story Museum!
Other Museums & Galleries Edinburgh Venues
Six museums and monuments were just about as much as I could possibly fit into one day in Edinburgh, but there are many more hidden gems to discover in the city.
Scott Monument is one of the tallest monuments in Edinburgh. It is dedicated to the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott and built after a design by George Meikle Kemp. It towers 200 feet (over 60m) above Princes Street and offers stunning views of the city. The staircase to the top is pretty steep and narrow, but the views are worth the effort. The Museum Room on the first floor of the Monument tells the story of the monument and offers a welcome break before you continue to climb the staircase to the top.
Scott Monument, Princes St Gardens, Edinburgh EH2 2EJ, 10 am to 4 pm, Entrance: £8.
Museum of Childhood
The Museum of Childhood features objects related to childhood life, learning and playing. The exhibition is interactive and includes many displays with retro objects that will delight kids as well as nostalgic grown-ups. A second exhibition space (coming soon) tells the story of growing up in Edinburgh through photos, moving image and objects. If you visit Edinburgh with kids, this is the place to go!
Museum of Childhood, Royal Mile, 42 High St, Edinburgh EH1 1TG, 10 am to 5 pm, Free entrance.
Edinburgh Castle is by far not the only castle in Edinburgh! Take the bus to Lauriston Castle and get away from the bustle of the city. Join a guided tour to see the castle and go for a walk around the impressive castle grounds. There are beautiful woodlands and an award-winning Japanese Garden.
Lauriston Castle, 2 Cramond Rd S, Edinburgh EH4 6AD, Grounds: 8 am to 8 pm, Castle: Tours Only, Entrance: £8.
As you can see, you could spend a day in Edinburgh visiting several hidden gems in the city, just like me – or pick your favourites from the list to sprinkle them throughout your Edinburgh itinerary.
I had a lovely time exploring the hidden Edinburgh museums and experiencing a different side of the city.
Will you follow in my foot steps?
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.